Residents puzzle over man who died near Ore. town

AP News
Posted: May 15, 2011 4:32 PM
Residents puzzle over man who died near Ore. town

Three miles. That was all that separated Jerry William McDonald from a cold death alone in the Oregon woods and a warm meal back at the local restaurant.

Residents in this old logging town in the remote foothills of the Cascade Range are puzzled over why he did not leave his stranded truck. Authorities have not said how the 68-year-old Oregon man ended up stuck in the woods and unable to seek help.

A U.S. Forest Service crew found his body Thursday in a sleeping bag in the back of his 1997 baby blue GMC pickup, about 60 miles east of Salem, the state capital. McDonald kept a log as he stayed in his pickup on a small road from Marion Forks, detailing a 68-day ordeal that ended in his death from hypothermia and starvation.

"He could have walked right down here to this restaurant," said Kerry Boenisch, who was having brunch with her husband in Marion Forks. The couple from Newberg, Ore., own a cabin in town and often walk, even with a couple feet of snow on the ground.

"Instead, you sit there and write in your journal for nearly 70 days," she said Saturday. "That's a long time. It's downhill. He's not out far enough to be doing that, to be lost in the woods."

His body was discovered nearly a month after his last entry, on April 15, which read "rain." His first entry was Feb. 7, when he arrived in the area to camp, authorities said. Days later, he awoke to find himself in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, said Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller.

Authorities say McDonald was a transient, though his pickup was registered in Unity, Ore., about 250 miles away. He was estranged from his family, and no one had reported him missing.

Mark Bennett, a rancher in the town of 115 residents and Unity's unofficial mayor, said he did not know McDonald, but that many transients and miners use the area as a base.

"It's sad that no one missed him enough to call or for anybody to look for him," said Evie Grindstaff, restaurant manager at the Marion Forks Restaurant. "That's a long time to be gone and have somebody not notice."

McDonald's story parallels that of Christopher McCandless, who was found dead in his sleeping bag 25 miles from a nearby town after embarking on a trip into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. He also maintained a journal, which spanned 112 days.

More recently, a Canadian couple went missing in March as they drove through Oregon on their way to Las Vegas. McDonald's body was found just a week after hunters in remote northern Nevada rescued the woman, who had been stranded in her van for seven weeks. Her husband, who went for help on foot, remains missing.

McDonald lived out the last days of his life about a quarter-mile up a forest service road off Horn Creek Road, an area frequented by elk hunters and people seeking a good view of Mount Jefferson. He camped along a ridgeline in the Cascade Range foothills about 2,500 feet up in elevation, with Douglas firs and a bubbling creek nearby.

His truck was found along an unpaved portion of the road, which was muddy and difficult to pass in places due to snowmelt. The remnants of his stay there include a man-made pit off the trail filled with paper scraps, cardboard from a case of Pepsi and torn pages from a phonebook. Pieces of burned wood were scattered nearby, as well as piles of wood.

In his log, McDonald noted every change in weather. He labeled his efforts to dig out _ "Dig o" _ during the first three days of his ordeal, and noted when the day he ran out of food: "No Fo," on March 16.

Authorities believe McDonald liked to camp. He had gallons of water, extra fuel and warm clothes, but not enough food for the length of his ordeal. Although he did not have a compass, cell phone or GPS device, he had $5,000 in cash, a jack for his truck, and chains on his tires.

McDonald seemed to know the area well. His log showed he spent time in Oregon's coastal countryside, stopping in towns like Kitson, Ore. He had plans to drive near Salem, and then on to the tiny community of Powers by April.

His body is at the AAsum-Dufour Funeral Home in Albany, Ore., said owner James Dufour. The family planned to make funeral arrangements Monday, Dufour said.


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Associated Press writer Nigel Duara contributed to this story from Portland, Ore.